Winter Compost Maintenance

A quick google search for “compost” will yield a bounty of photos of bins, tumblers, piles, and garden beds all filled with varying stages of organic matter transforming into “black gold.” What those photos don’t often show you are images of compost piles during a snowstorm or sub-freezing temperatures—a reality for many of us.

What should we do to maintain and tend our compost pile during the winter? Author and compost expert Michelle Balz offers tips and best practices for winter compost maintenance in her new book, Composting for a New Generation.

how to compost in winter composting organic matter
Photo: Anna Stockton/ Composting for a New Generation

Winter Compost Maintenance

Anticipating winter gives animals an edge for survival in the wild, and preparing for the impending cold will give you an edge as a successful composter (although natural selection among composters is much less brutal than in the wild). If you live in an area that experiences cold winters, you will need to change a few maintenance habits during the colder months of the year.

Much like the rest of us huddling in our homes against the cold weather, happy to hibernate for a few months, life in your compost pile slows down and could go completely dormant. Most of the microorganisms responsible for decomposition cannot withstand freezing temperatures.

Winter composting tips fall into two categories: tips everyone should follow and tips you can choose to follow if you want to be an overachiever.

Tips everyone should follow:

  • Harvest your compost in the fall so that you have plenty of room in your bin for a piling up of food scraps.
  • Layer in leaves every time you add food scraps. They may not be breaking down much now, but adding a layer of leaves on your food scraps in the winter will stack the deck for the warmer weather. Once spring hits, your pile will be nicely balanced and decompose quickly.
  • Do not hand aerate or turn your pile in the winter. Since the pile is mostly dormant, turning it will be a waste of time and may even freeze the last holdout microorganisms huddled in the middle of the pile.
compost in winter composting organic matter
Photo: Anna Stockton/ Composting for a New Generation

Now for the overachiever tips. You can take extra precautions to prevent your pile from freezing and continue the decomposition over the winter. If you have a hot compost pile, it could be generating enough heat to withstand a mild winter. The secret to keeping your microorganisms munching through the cold is to insulate your compost pile against the elements.

Straw bales, giant piles of leaves, cardboard, and leftover home insulation materials can also be used to surround your compost bin to keep the warm in and the cold out. You can even pile snow as insulation around your compost bin if you live in an area covered by a few feet of snow all winter. Insulate the sides and the top of the bin for the best effect.

The next tip for keeping your compost cooking over the winter is to continue to add food scraps and other high-nitrogen materials. Without fuel, your microbial party will soon putter out. Layer in leaves to keep it balanced and make it easy on your friends by chopping up those food scraps for quick winter snacking.

Overachiever winter composting tips:

  • Insulate the sides and top of your bin with straw, leaves, or leftover insulation.
  • Continue adding food scraps all winter.
  • Chop materials smaller to make decomposition faster.

If you chose to go the lazy route like me and not insulate your bin for the winter, Mother Nature will help your materials decompose with the natural freeze-thaw cycle. Every time it freezes, the water inside your food scraps and wet plant material expands, helping break apart the material’s structure. Water expands by about 9 percent from its liquid to solid state. Since food scraps have a high water content (roughly 80 to 90 percent), that means a lot of expansion. After dozens of freeze-thaw cycles, that banana peel is basically “pre-chewed” and on the fast track for spring bacteria and fungi to finish the job.

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These aren’t your grandpa’s composting methods. 

Composting for a New Generation covers the modern composting techniques, vermicomposting, composting with nature, keyhole gardens, organic composting, and using compost.

Environmentalists aren’t the only ones to compost anymore! It’s not just about reducing food waste; most composters get their hands dirty because of the benefits it brings to the soil in their garden. All the extra nutrients make for well-fed gardens with plenty of nutrients and rich moisture.

Composting has “been under the radar screen until now, and seen as a boutique, West Coast thing,” says Jared Blumenfeld, who oversees California as well as two other Western states and the Pacific for the Environmental Protection Agency. “But now everyone from Massachusetts to Minnesota has programs starting up, and pretty soon there will be a critical mass.”

Composting for a New Generation includes tried-and-true composting methods and new, innovative techniques. You’ll learn the science of composting, traditional bin composting (including how-to sections on building your own bin), vermicomposting (with worms), composting with nature, keyhole gardens, organic composting, and using your finished compost. Composting for a New Generation is the most complete book to date for your organic soil needs.

Michelle Balz is a long-time backyard composter with a passion for reducing our impact on the planet. She spends her days writing laid-back advice for home composters in the Confessions of a Composter blog, teaching classes on backyard composting, and learning everything she can about composting, recycling, reusing, and waste reduction. Since 2002, Michelle has worked as a solid waste (a.k.a. garbage) professional encouraging residents and businesses to reduce their waste and use fewer resources. Michelle has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and a master’s degree in Professional Writing both from the University of Cincinnati. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Anna Stockton earned her BFA in Photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design and is a member of the American Society of Media Photographers. With over fifteen years of experience in professional photography, Stockton has worked for Cincinnati clients such as WCET-TV and national clients including Marc by Marc Jacobs, has taught as a photography instructor at the college level, and has worked as a photo specialist with Sony Digital Imaging. This is her first book.